MLK Day and Our Walls

By Rich Harwood

As MLK Day approaches, and our nation is mired in a seemingly endless impasse over building a wall on our southern border, I can’t help but think about Martin Luther King, Jr.’s urgings to tear down the walls that stand between us.

In September of 1964, King visited the Berlin Wall and spoke about “breaking down the dividing walls of hostility” that can separate people from one another. At the time, he was speaking both of physical walls and the ones that we build in our own minds.  

I have said before, and I will say here again, that my intention in speaking out about “walls” is not to get into a debate over border security. As I have said before, and I repeat here, there are legitimate fears and concerns on all sides of this discussion in the U.S. And I repeat here, again, that I recognize our nation’s right to secure its borders.

But I also wish to be clear about my own growing fears about how the coarsening of our public discourse over the wall has degenerated into name-calling and demonization and other negativities that contaminate our body politic and harden our hearts.

Wherever I turn, I see walls going up between and among people in our society. So many people hold grievances about their current lives and their future. So many parts of our politics and community life have become divvied up into balkanized identities.  So many segments of our society harbor deep anger about being left behind. This is an important juncture in our recent history.

There is an old country song the refrain of which is, “I can’t see me in your eyes anymore.” Too many people in our country do not feel that they and their lived experiences are seen, that their voices are heard, that what matters to them matters to us all. In essence, this can make people feel that their reality does not count for much; and when this happens, we deny people their dignity.

When such conditions go unaddressed—indeed, when we begin to build walls between one another—it is a recipe for a competition for who can yell the loudest to have their concerns heard above the noise; for protracted gridlock; and for a growing loss of confidence in a political system that fails to adequately respond. We question our faith in one another, and our ability to get things done together. In short, it becomes increasingly difficult to build a society rooted in our shared lives.

Our response to these conditions is that we must re-commit ourselves to seeing and hearing people—all people. We must find ways to honor people’s identities, and also challenge ourselves to step beyond them to create a greater whole. We must acknowledge people’s grievances—as painful as that will be—and then work to genuinely address them.

None of this is easy or simple or quick. Unfortunately, at times, the debate over the wall suggests that somehow it might fix all or many of our ills. That’s truly unfortunate—and dead wrong.

On that September day in Berlin, King reminded us that, “men and women search for meaning, hope for fulfillment, yearn for faith in something beyond themselves, and cry desperately for love and community to support them…” Yes, this is what all human beings want, no matter their views on a wall.

If we wish to do something about the condition of our country, if we seek to improve our individual and shared lives, then let us tear down the walls that exist between us. Let us instead use our energies to build paths to one another so that we can, together, create a more hopeful society. 

This is my wish for MLK Day—and every other day.